John Harris

Journalist & Author

The pandemic has exposed the failings of Britain’s centralised state | John Harris

Councils have been kept in the dark and starved of funds as coronavirus has spread. Power must be dispersed

And so it is that we reach a watershed point in the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, manifested in a tangle of stories all unified by vivid themes: power concentrated at the centre, a lack of meaningful checks and balances, and the exposure by incompetence and arrogance of the mess beneath. Primary schools are meant to partly reopen next Monday, but many are in no position to do so; a test-and-tracing regime that should have materialised weeks ago is still frantically being assembled. And then along come the revelations of Dominic Cummings’s wanderings – ostensibly a tale of one man’s self-importance, but really the story of an unelected courtier whose influence and reputation speak volumes about how broken our system of government now is.

One recurrent spectacle has defined the last couple of months: ministers, presumably egged on by their advisers, grandly issuing their edicts, only for people to insist that they simply do not match the reality on the ground. The schools story is one example; another was the shambolic and arrogant way that Boris Johnson announced the shift from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, and his call for droves of people to return to work. Watching the leaders of Wales and Scotland insist they had no input into the government’s change of message and then stick to their existing lockdowns was a stark reminder that the UK is continuing to fragment. In England, meanwhile, the council leaders and mayors who were suddenly faced with huge consequences for transport and public health had been caught on the hop. “No one in government thought it important to tell the cities who’d have to cope,” said the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham. Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, told me last week: “The first I knew about it was when I saw it on TV.”

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